Popular culture provides a window into world affairs for me for the second week in a row, as the upcoming Seth Rogen/James Franco movie, “The Interview,” becomes the eye of an international storm. I generally don’t find Rogen’s work all that funny, but the notion that a fictional, over-the-top portrayal of a CIA plot to assassinate North Korean President Kim Jong Un could become the trigger for a real-life cyber war is pretty amusing – if you ignore the larger implications this holds for the future.
As I discuss in my new post this week on US News & World Report, we just may have witnessed the defining war of the 21st Century.
A group of hackers, apparently at the behest of the North Korean government, wreaked havoc on Sony Pictures by stealing thousands of documents and causing the company an untold level of damage. You might think it unlikely that anyone would conceive of a Seth Rogen pic as intelligence war rather than part of a war on intelligence. But North Korea’s less-than-keen appreciation of satire has led it to denounce the movie as an “act of war” that would result in “stern” and “merciless” retaliation, and to launch a cyber attack on a private company (with revenues that exceed the GDP’s of one-quarter of the world’s states) intended simply, as in war, to destroy it.
In sum, we’ve just seen a new category of state aggression against non-state actors (or, to judge by some of Sony’s email comments about its own stars, non-actors), involving entirely economic – without any physical – destruction of a non-territorial adversary. These events encapsulate in one episode all the trends we see coming – the blurring of distinctions between governments and businesses, state and non-state actors, the real and the virtual. Most of it won’t be as comedic.
I don’t write about popular culture often. In fact, I don’t watch TV all that much, so it’s somewhat anomalous that my piece for US News this week starts with a critique of the latest episode of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama, The Newsroom. This episode has been widely lambasted for its treatment of issues surrounding campus rape. The Newsroom usually aims for a belated ripped-from-the-headlines approach by showing journalists in action covering stories from roughly 18 months ago, but last weekend it stumbled – into breaking news, that is – by addressing campus rape in the wake of the University of Virginia controversy.
As discussed in my new US News post, however, this wasn’t the show’s real concern. Rather, it was simply another illustration of Sorkin’s reactionary take on the clash between new media and old. The other issues addressed in the episode – including the incredibly bad idea of staging an on-air confrontation between a Princeton student and her alleged rapist – all connect one way or another to the font of all evil: the fictional network’s new techy billionaire owner.
The episode engendered an unusually timely aura thanks to not just the UV rape story but also the reported death at week’s end of The New Republic (TNR) at the hands of its evil, new techy (near-)billionaire owner, Chris Hughes. But while Sorkin is being vilified for his reactionary and cartoonish portrayal of the coming new-media world, Hughes is being vilified for embodying it.
The immediate question posed by the perhaps-exaggerated reports of TNR’s demise is, Can serious journalism survive economically in a market that favors cat videos, inflammatory tweets, and listicles? But the issue raises parallels with the direction that all modern institutions, including governments, are headed.
This week was the last lecture of my course on “The Future of Government” at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. I had planned to wrap up the course by talking about the “virtual state” – the possibility of nationhood, states, and governments as we know them detaching from territorial connections and becoming something new, incorporeal, even virtual. As I told students at the beginning of the term, I’m surprised by how much what I viewed as far off in the future when I first taught the course last year has hit the headlines and become reality in 2014. And sure enough, just before I left my office to present the afternoon’s lecture, this article landed in my email from the The Atlantic about Estonia issuing the first “e-resident” card.
Author Uri Friedman quotes Siim Sikkut, an information and communications technology advisor in the Estonian government, as disputing “that the e-residency scheme could disrupt the nation-state system as we know it.”
E-residency “is not meant to be a meaningful innovation in the sense of revolutionizing citizenship,” he noted. “We are solving a practical problem for people, allowing them to conduct business and carry out their lives more efficiently (meaning: digitally).”
I think this is a serious understatement. Right now, “e-residency” is conceived by Estonia as simply a way to market the country as the most e-advanced in the world and attract some business activity there by those abroad who appreciate the easy access that this new electronic system provides not just to the hyper-wired Estonian economy and government structures but also to all of Europe. But this pushes the envelope of state definition in several important ways.
First, this is very much a “branding” effort by Estonia – much like a commercial venture’s. And what the country is trying to do is to offer a service so much better than its “competitors’” that people choose to get their government from Estonia – just like a business. Finally, while some other cutting-edge governments before like Delaware and Nevada have adopted similar competitive strategies (as I discussed in this Atlantic piece), Estonia’s is the first actually to go “virtual” in the virtual world – totally abandoning any physical presence whatsoever (after all, what stays in Vegas actually has to have happened there first). Eventually, people will be choosing government from the best provider, regardless of location, and governments will be competing like – in fact will basically be – businesses.